Monday, June 19, 2017

Flow/Peak

Flow/Peak

Flowstate is a name by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (a chief creativity researcher) for what is popularly called “being in the zone.”

Flowstate is characterized by high levels of focus on the task at hand and low self-consciousness. It’s that state where you get sucked into the task to the degree that you lose track of self and time and experience your highest performance. For this reason, achieving flowstate is the goal of traditional sports psychology.

Contributors to flowstate:

• Structure
• Realistic, achievable goals
• Unambiguous progress-markers
• Task-focus
• High challenge level
• High skill level
• Intrinsic motivation
• Feeling in control

Detractors:
• Anxiety
• Self-focus
• Feeling out of control

Checks:
• Intense focus
• Little to no self-reflection
• Merging of action and awareness
• Don’t care/notice time passing
• Could you hold a conversation? If so you're not even close.

While similar, flowstate is sometimes distinguished from what we’d call “total absorption,” in which your awareness of everything but the task fades out completely. The easiest way to tell the difference is whether or not you feel like you’re coming to your senses when leaving the state. If you were so unaware of your senses that they seem come back to you as if to fill a void, that’s absorption. If you were aware of them but they weren’t as central as your hyper focus, that’s flowstate. At first this distinction seems like hair-splitting, but consider the following: Who is more likely to succeed? 1) A competitor that is focused on the game and his mind is committed to thought/the screen or 2) a competitor that is focused on the game while 100% present in the moment. Different question: Who is more likely to get hit by a car? A car crash isn’t likely, but surprises are all but guaranteed. Being mindfully focussed rather than totally absorbed preserves your capacity to deal with them.

All this being said, flowstate as a concept is a somewhat problematic because, to my understanding,
a) its theory and research is nascent.
b) its chief context (traditional sports psych) is largely badly conceived.
c) cognitive science isn’t developed enough to provide mechanical answers to the pragmatic questions. Flowstate itself is too nuanced.

The primary problem with the flowstate concept is the subtext that it is outside of your control. The belief is that you cannot control the state itself, you can only lay out the conditions as best you can and then trust that it will show up. This is easily illustrated by describing the primary problem with traditional sports psychology in general. In summary: the primary purpose of sports psychology is to provide psychological skills training that will achieve flowstate on game-day. Because flowstate has been thought to be impossible to achieve with anxiety, these psychological skills usually involve a huge amount of self-correction i.e. self-monitoring. As a result of trying to eliminate anxiety, they actually introduce a secondary flow detractor, self-focus. Traditional sports psychology has been demonstrated to have very weak efficacy. That is to say, if conditions are perfect then the athletes go straight to flow. But should conditions be any less than perfect the athletes are just as distracted by their self-corrective focus than they would have been on their anxiety and while they are better able to handle themselves psychologically on the long-term, they show NO performance increase, sometimes even showing a decrease. This matches my personal experience with traditional sports psych skills.

There is an alternate perspective that rejects the notion that flowstate is uncontrollable; peak. Peak and flowstate are effectively interchangeable terms, but the circles that use peak tend to be less micromanagey. They do not subscribe to the methodology in which you control conditions in order to prime for the optimal mental state in order to prime for the optimal behavior in order to prime for optimal performance. Rather, they choose to skip first few steps and focus on optimal behavior or things directly related to it. Chief among these is MAC, a method increasingly used by olympic athletes and champion sports teams. In the MAC model, psychological skills are used not to eliminate anxiety, but to instruct athletes on how to avoid changing their behavior if anxiety is present. This is obviously more consistent than the alternative. In this way, peak is controllable and, should the skills be effectively learned, very consistent. It becomes an artificial or approximate flowstate that may or may not bleed into a deeper flow/superfluidity, but always has a very high baseline.

The takeaway here should be that a high-performance state is not up to chance. It is not reserved for experts or geniuses. Rather, where and how your focus rests can be easily cultivated just like any other skill or habit. The smallest effort to that effect will go a long way!

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